The Regional Review

Volume I - No. 2

August, 1938

Flame Azalea


By H. M. Jennison,
Temporary Ranger-Naturalist

Be not apprehensive of the title, - this is not a fairy tale. Rather, it is an attempt to broadcast something of our knowledge of certain representatives of a group of interesting and beautiful flowering shrubs native in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The name Azalea is from the Greek, meaning dry, from the habitat of an early-to-be-described species. The word is etymologically interesting. Note the juxtaposition of the first and last letters of our alphabet; as well as the use of only two vowels and two consonants. To attest the popularity of the word witness its use as a given name for girls.

By some botanists Azalea is regarded as a genus name, but more acceptably it is used to designate a section of the great genus Rhododendron.

In all the world there are many hundreds of species of Rhododendron. What we here seem to lack in numbers is amply compensated for in the beauty of form, the variety of flower-color and the fragrance of the species present in our mountains. Excepting one Australian species the members of this genus grow in the northern hemisphere, though of course in many widely scattered lands. They come from cold arctic tundras and frozen moorlands, the mountains, the hills and the ravines of the temperate zone, the lofty ranges of the mighty Himalayas, the rain forests of Burma, and the dark tropical forests of the East Indies. The center of the Rhododendron universe seems to be in southwestern China.

Twenty-six of the described species of Rhododendron are native to North America, 20 of the 26 being indigenous to the eastern United States. Fourteen of these are Azaleas. Three (not counting the undescribed forms mentioned below) are indigenous to the Great Smokies. If it seems to you that five is a very small number you may be assured and consoled by knowing that great numbers of plants of the few are widely distributed, that the Flame Azalea in particular is very abundant and that its flower-color forms range from pale yellow to carmine. In the Great Smokies we have species which are not yet described in the botany manuals. There are also a number of "unknown" natural hybrids of distinct floricultural value.

The greatest concentration of Rhododendron (Azalea) species appears to be in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Here in the Great Smokies it seems that we are at or near the center of the Azalea universe of eastern North America.

Species of Azalea known to be more or less frequent and abundant in this Park are:

1. Pinxter Flower (R. nudiflorum)
2. Smooth Azalea (R. arborescens)
3. Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)
4. Mountain-white Azalea (R. new species?)
5. Rose-pink Azalea (R. new species?)

The Flame Azalea is noted for its beauty and its variety as to color of flowers. Natural crossing (hybridization) between the last three in the list has resulted, in one habitat (Gregorys Bald), in "the most bizarre and taxonomically the most vexing collection of Azaleas ever seen", in the words of Dr. W. H. Camp of the New York Botanical Garden.

Excepting the pinxter flower (R. nudiflorum) ours are strictly montane forms. This species is known, however, to grow in our area at elevations up to about 2,000 feet.

With us, the smooth Azalea is the least abundant. It is quite frequent on the rocky banks of streams at lower (up to about 2,000 feet) elevations.

The Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum) is the most abundant and wide-spread of the lot. It grows on mountain sides and tops and ranges from the lower elevations (1,000 feet) up to nearly 6,000 feet. As a consequence its blooming season is a long one, beginning as a rule in late April in the lowlands and extending to late July in the higher, cooler habitats. There is a considerable difference, moreover, in the date of blooming of different plants, and this results in a veritable parade of color in certain places at about the same elevation.

For beauty of form and variety of flower-color the Flame Azalea is in a class by itself. Long ago, William Bartram, the famous plant hunter of pre-revolution days, (l773) proclaimed it to be "the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known". His description is near the classic:

"The epithet fiery, I annex to this most celebrated species of Azalea, as being expressive of the appearance of its flowers, which are in general of the colour of the finest red-lead, orange, bright bold, as well as yellow and cream colour; these various splendid colours are not only on separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen on separate branches of the same plant; and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such great profusion on the hillsides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hill being set on fire."

All of which we can endorse heartily except where he writes: "but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen on separated branches of the same plant." Yet even Bartram "hadn't seen nothin' yit", as we hillbillies say, because he never saw what is one of Nature's finest Azalea gardens on Gregorys Bald, or others of the several mountain top balds in this park. On Gregorys, about the middle of June each year, one finds an exhibit worth traveling far and hiking miles to see. One newspaper writer commented on July 1, 1938: "By this time of year the Azaleas at lower elevations have done blooming but on some of the mountain tops at elevations around 5,000 feet the Azalea show is at its best."

Bushes varying in size and stature from two to 12 or 15 feet are everywhere. The woods are "full of them", and the plants are literally covered with bloom. Plants with flame-colored flowers seem to be the more numerous, but others are even more noticeable because of the lighter color or greater brilliance of their flowers. On and near Gregorys Bald ten or a dozen color-forms grow in incredible profusion. This exhibit includes the two "new species" mentioned above. Some of the plants have white flowers that exhale an alluring spicy fragrance; while many of the others are entirely without odor. The absence of color (white) plus a sweet spicy fragrance is characteristic of one of the basic forms here present; pure pink corollas and no fragrance characterize a second; and the Flame Azalea with its vari-colored blooms having a yellow blotch on the odd lobe of the corolla is the third of the three specific entities in the population comprising the Gregorys Bald Azalea community.

Bees and other insects are attracted by the flowers as is manifest by the presence of great numbers of them during the day. As they move from flower to flower, and from bush to bush, cross-pollination is effected. Cross-fertilization evidently has followed with the result that through the years a considerable number of hybrids has been produced. The possibilities for color combinations are great though not infinite. Many shades of color in the red end of the spectrum are represented in the community. (Green, blue, indigo and violet are absent.) In the region of the red we have diffused-pink, pure-pink, flame color, red, crimson, carmine, and other colors. In the region of the yellow there are bright colored flowers, some that are pale yellow, and still others which are yellow-orange. There also are present bushes bearing flowers colored by pigments characteristic of the region of the orange; some tea-rose, some orange, some orange-yellow, some orange-red, and so on.

No wonder Dr. Camp used "bizarre" to describe the lot. But the community is as beautiful as it is bizarre; and as alluring as it is striking. "Once seen never to be forgotten" certainly applies to this natural Azalea garden. Once seen and you will go back, even though it is five mountain miles away from the nearest road. The trails are good. and the hiking or riding is fine. When you are there the chances are that you will be alone with the bees and the wild turkey --- there under a blue sky filled with indescribably beautiful white thunderheads which change as they drift along. This place with its Azaleas is indeed a color-photographer's heaven.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002